Good stories: “Something Is Out There”

Richard Bausch published a new collection of short stories this month. He’s recognized among the best when it comes to this form, and I’m a long-time fan.

My favorite story in his new book is “Trophy.” It concerns four co-workers and their boss who golf together one foggy Sunday morning. The boss is always down on his luck, including the recent IRS take-over of his car dealership, where they all work. “And through it all,” one co-worker says, “he was interested in how we were doing.” 

That co-worker taps the boss’s golf ball into the cup on the 16th green. He blackmails another co-worker to go along with him in pretending the boss hit a hole in one. From then on, the boss’s luck turns around. “Trophy” is my favorite because it so powerfully captures the sudden, difficult and hard-to-control impulse to lie in order to do good.

The collection’s other stories are similarly deep in meaning and populated by characters flinching at the rough edges of their relationships. They take place for the most part in Tennessee and Virginia, and they are written with sagacious insight concerning themes of fear and trust, individual identity within marriage and bravery in the face of loss. While they are not depressing stories, they disturb the premise that we can rest assured in our loved ones.

In the story “Son and Heir,” the son of a prominent college president and wife is expelled from three universities and drifts through jobs and relationships. He lives in defiance of his parents’ expectations and their phony life. Eventually, his father cuts him off financially and says, “‘You’re going to want to blame somebody or something. It’s human nature. When life comes down on you, you’ll want to point at something.’” He also says, “‘I want you to know, I’m not taking the blame for you.’”

If not our husbands, wives, parents, friends or children, then who can we be assured of? Bausch plays with that question in the last story, “Sixty-five Million Years.” The main character is a priest bored by his duties and the pettiness of his parishioners’ troubles. One day, a very knowledgeable teen-aged boy enters the confession box and states that dinosaurs lived for millions of years and human existence compared to that is only a fraction of a second. “‘What was God thinking?’” he asks.

I’m not an avid short-story reader, but I was drawn to read this collection daily until it was finished. Even the book’s enticing jacket design, thick paper and Janson typeface — noted at the back of the book to be “of the influential sturdy Dutch types” – conspired to make me want to keep this book in hand.